Google Takeout and Data Portability

Dec 7, 2022

Google Takeout has been around for a decade. It's a feature that allows you to export your entire Google data history in a series of zip files. Google search history, Google Docs, Contacts, Calendar, Maps, Wallet, Voice, and many other Google products are included in the data export. Other companies like Meta have similar services.

However, nobody really uses these data export tools. There are no competing products that make use of this data. Other than a few curious downloaders or some tin-foil programmers who want to keep backups of their data, it seems more like a failed exercise in data portability.

It’s an interesting topic because data portability is a key feature of blockchains. You give up privacy in exchange for data portability — other services can plausibly create crafted experiences for you based on your on-chain activity. It’s often used as an example of in-application items or NFTs that you can transfer between games or experiences (e.g., a rare item in a game that gives a bonus in another game).

A few hypotheses:

  • Application-specific data isn’t generally useful. Even for seemingly generic data like calendars and docs, data rarely makes sense out of context. Data schemas are often very different, and hard to create one-to-one mappings.
  • Google Takeout and similar services are only the bare-minimum implementations. No service has the incentive to let you control more of your own data, especially ones whose business model depends on it. If it were easier to use, it would be used more often.
  • The most valuable data isn’t exported. Google only added searches to Takeout in 2016 (five years after it launched). It’s possible that there’s valuable data that isn’t exported.